Growing Up in the Shadow of Andy Warhol

A new memoir by Alexandra Auder delves into life with her parents, Warhol superstar Viva and artist Michel Auder

BY Leila Levy Gale in Books , Opinion | 26 JUL 23

In her new memoir, Don’t Call Me Home, writer and actor Alexandra Auder – daughter of iconic Andy Warhol superstar Viva and diaristic filmmaker Michel Auder – observes that her memories have been ‘permanently hijacked’ by her father’s camera. Her father films her, age seven, watching a video of her birth in black and white. He then films her in front of another video, this one showing her mother’s phone call to Warhol telling him about her birth. ‘Well, Andy, I was going to make you the baby’s godfather, but since you still haven’t come to see us …’ If Auder does not remember, the camera remembers for her. One gets the impression that this is part of the allure for her of writing a memoir: Auder finally gets to recall her own life.

Alexandra Auder, Don't Call Me Home, 2023
Alexandra Auder, Don’t Call Me Home, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Viking 

Auder’s mother – with her iconic, wide-set eyes and curly blonde hair – starred in such Warhol classics as The Nude Restaurant (1967) and Blue Movie (1969), which was banned for featuring a sex scene between Viva and Louis Waldon. In his loosely plotted ‘anti-films’ (made largely in the 1960s and early ’70s), Warhol shot the weird and the beautiful who gathered at the Factory – mostly distinctive faces carrying the promise of becoming a muse to Drella – in extended (and sometimes trying) studies of sex, banality and human attention. Viva was a fixture of the scene and a regular in front of Warhol’s camera.

This iconic, and potentially overshadowing, legacy is only part of Auder’s problem. She writes with a disturbing knowingness about how, even as a child, she understood that her mother – for whom parenting uneasily combined fierce love with an extreme lack of boundaries – would not have a redemptive arc. Throughout Auder’s memoir, Viva is a dominating, larger-than-life figure, needy and intense, with unpredictable moods that strike like lightning. She is someone from whom Auder struggles to disentangle herself, despite not quite seeing their life together as abnormal at the time. Of being dropped off at her father’s apartment on one occasion after her parents had separated, Auder writes: ‘All of a sudden, like in a cowboy movie when the new guy in town enters the saloon and everyone has drawn their guns, my parents were chasing each other around the glass coffee table. At first, I thought it was a game of tag.’ 

Alexandra Auder sitting in a chair.
Alexandra Auder portrait, 2019. Courtesy: Viking; photograph: Nick Nehez

Her father can be seen – bleary-eyed, messy-haired, exquisitely beautiful – in photos of him posing with Viva on the balconies of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where they lived and raised Auder. He drops in and out of the book in a way that suggests his presence during this time was inconsistent. When he does appear, it is through foggy, half-formed memories, as Auder pieces together what she, as a child, didn’t realize was his addiction to heroin. It is the ‘crinkle and click of paraphernalia’ and the ‘little things burned to brown’, the collection of noises and smells that Auder deftly draws from the piecemeal stories children invent out of their parents’ lives.

Downtown New York is captured in moments of heightened attention: the Hungarian squat theatre troupe on 8th Avenue; mashed potatoes and gravy at the Ritz Diner; the throw-away sentence about her best friend’s sister who had ‘at 16, already dated the artist Jean-Michael Basquiat’. In such careful detail, Don’t Call Me Home offers readers a glimpse of something more underground than the Underground: uncovering the reality of the lives behind the murky decadence of the Factory. This everyday sense of the Factory before Warhol’s fame vaunted it in our collective imagination as the American ur-bohemia is an important background for Auder’s more uncomfortable memories. Auder describes how, when her half-sister, the actor Gaby Hoffmann, is born in 1982, she assumes a co-parenting role with Viva, who is estranged from Hoffmann’s father, Anthony Herrera. The lobby attendant calls Auder a ‘proud new mother’ and strangers often ask, ‘Is she yours?’ Auder describes going to her friend’s house as a ‘respite from new motherhood’. While no 12 year old should bear so much responsibility, her writing about this little group of three trying to make it in the world is brilliant and touching. They may be unconventional, but they are a family. You can’t help but wonder how this family will ‘turn out’, which Auder conveys in a series of follow-up chapters, titled ‘Now’, which are scattered throughout the memoir. Auder tells us that, as an adult, she hosts Christmas at her family home: among the guests is Cindy Sherman, her father’s ex-wife, carrying ‘a fifties-style gingerbread house she made herself’. Ex-wife to ex-wife, ‘Cindy and Viva seem downright cosy with each other. Their bonding subject quickly switches from gingerbread to Michel’s fuckery.’ It is almost domestic, in the loosest sense of the word.

Viva and Andy Warhol at the Chelsea hotel
Viva and Andy Warhol at the Chelsea Hotel, undated. Courtesy: Martos Gallery 

Viva mothers in a way that would evoke many buzzwords now: trauma, codependency, inconsistency. Yet, in the final chapters of her memoir, Auder appears grateful for the thrill – although it’s not all grace and understanding. Viva continues to antagonise, trick, prod and poke at her children’s weak spots. Auder recalls when her own daughter, Lui, was crying as a baby and Viva said smugly, ‘You never cried.’ In the kitchen, she sloppily assembles an unwanted chicken soup laden with unsaid resentment; the onion is chopped with ‘very abrupt, violent hacks, no pattern, chunks of onion landing on the floor’. You hope Viva will wander off the page as much as you can’t stop reading about her. Auder even visualizes a final goodbye, relatable to anyone with a difficult parent. By the end, however, she knows we are not quite ready to let go of Viva, with all her brilliant madness. After her mother’s unexpectedly extended stay over the Christmas holidays, Alexandra says goodbye to Viva at the airport and then finds herself crying, overwhelmed with sudden and intangible emotion. It is a moment where some acknowledgment might occur between mother and child, a moment where we wait for Viva to account for the damage done. Instead? ‘I forgive you,’ Viva tells Auder. Just as Viva would.

Main image: Viva on the phone at the Chelsea hotel, undated. Courtesy: Martos Gallery 

Leila Levy Gale is a writer and performer, currently working on a collection of short stories about metamorphoses.